Dow Inc. CEO Jim Fitterling is confident that the plastics industry can find the answers to its current waste challenge.
"On a high level, the plastics waste issue is solvable," Fitterling said in an Oct. 18 interview with Plastics News. "Our efforts with the Alliance to End Plastic Waste are working to close the loop and have a positive impact on carbon emissions."
Midland, Mich.-based Dow is one of the world's largest makers of polyethylene as well as many specialty plastics. Fitterling was named CEO in March 2018.
Fitterling joined Dow in 1984 and worked in sales, marketing and supply chain positions before assuming a variety of leadership roles. His plastics experience within Dow includes time spent as business vice president for polyethylene and president of basic plastics.
Banning plastics "is not the answer," Fitterling said. "Plastics have saved the world tons of carbon emissions over the years.
"A lot of attacks on plastics are emotional, and they tend to fade pretty quickly," he added. "If you think back to what our lives were like 30 years ago, plastics have had a big impact on medical care and food preservation and many other areas."
"Most brand owners know that alternatives to plastic can be worse, but they're under a lot of pressure and they feel like they need to find alternatives. They want to take the waste out of plastics packaging."
Like many resin firms, Dow has used affordable North American shale gas to expand its PE resin and ethylene feedstock operations on the U.S. Gulf Coast. Fitterling said that all of the firm's new capacity "is up," but that a second wave of smaller projects — including debottlenecking to add resin capacity — could take place beginning in 2021.
"Operating rates for polyethylene are still high," he said. "There's been some uncertainty because of trade issues and geopolitical issues, but there's not a big mismatch on supply and demand."
As for the next phase of expansion from Dow and other PE makers, Fitterling said it depends on how the U.S.-China trade dispute gets resolved.
"Producers need to know where the export market is going to be and the market timing of supply/demand," he said.
For now, Dow is working on numerous projects that could affect its supply chain, including a new propylene production method using fluidized catalytic dehydrogenation (FCDh) technology. PetroLogistics II LLC has licensed the technology for a propane dehydrogenation (PDH) project on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Fitterling said the new process can reduce energy intensity and carbon emissions by 20-30 percent. He added that if the PetroLogistics project and a smaller unit run by Dow are successful, the process might be applied to ethylene production.
Dow is also working on a project using pyrolysis at its site in Terneuzen, Netherlands. That project is converting plastic waste into pyrolysis oil, which can then be used to make new resins.
Eleven projects are being worked on by the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. Dow is a founding member of the group, which now has 43 members. Fitterling said the alliance is on track to exceed its pledged goal of $1.5 billion in investment.
Dow and many other plastics firms are working to balance sustainability and profitability. "In the beginning, it's been a little bit challenging," Fitterling said. "Everybody thinks they have the solution to sustainability. Not all of those solutions will make it, but some of them will.
"If we apply advanced technology, we can address sustainability and be profitable," he added.
Other Dow initiatives at K 2019 for PE and other specialty materials include:
• Innovations in industrial films, including post-consumer recyclate integration in heavy-duty shipping sacks and collation shrink films to thin stretch wrap films.
Benefits of these uses include increased protection of goods and improved load stability and thinner high performance films that meet regulatory and industry standards.
• V Plus Perform-brand panel insulation technology. These insulated panels help create "future-ready" buildings by putting sustainability, energy-efficiency and people at the heart of design. Benefits of these uses include increased energy efficiency and improved thermal comfort and air quality for healthy and safe indoor environments.
• Moldable optical silicone. Optical LSRs used in a Dow prototype are enabling the use of LEDs in advanced automotive applications. Benefits of these uses include resistance to high heat and lumen fluxes and stability against UV.
• The All-Dow Shoe, a show made with a variety of Dow materials, which can help brand owners differentiate their products in a competitive market. Benefits of the shoe include high levels of comfort and optimal performance.
Dow is a major producer of polyethylene resin as well as other specialty plastics and chemicals. The firm employs 37,000 worldwide and had sales of $50 billion in 2018. The firm became a separate public company on April 1 after a three-year merger with DuPont Co.